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Handel for hipsters: Revolution or red herring?

Hadleigh Adams and Drew Minter

Hadleigh Adams and Drew Minter

Small scale revolution might be fitfully brewing in operatic theater amid a current trilogy of Handel productions by the director R. B. Schlather in the White Box Gallery at New York’s Lower East Side.

The second installment was Orlando, premiered on Sunday April 26 with superficialities many of us have all seen before – a small-scale, modern-dress production with sexy, punky, hyperphysical  theatricality as well as many cuts made in the service of de-cluttering typical Baroque-era narrative and circumventing any possibilities of tedium.

A reprise of Peter Sellars’ 1980s updating experiments with Handel operas? Such comparisons come easily, but the theatrical theories guiding these revisionist directors puts them as far apart aesthetically as they are in years.

The oft-dramatized tale of the warrior Orlando who goes mad amid the usual nest of romantic complications inspired one of Handel’s best operas, this one in 1733, and showing the composer’s special relationship with madness. Handel had his breakdowns, one reason why his mad scenes are so much more chilling that the more typical ones that later arrived in bel canto operas. Not until Peter Grimes does one have madness so completely stripped of theatrical artifice. So for all of its moments of comedy, Orlando is a serious look at the condition of experiencing alternative reality. of phantom voices whispered into one’s ear, of being made the ultimate outsider due to unexplainable brain-chemical quirks.

Sellars didn’t slight the dark night of the soul in his famous Giulio Cesare, particularly in the opera’s later scenes that were treated to the kind of stark lighting-from-the-sides technique that caught on in the 1980s when Russian stage directors began visiting the west. But while Sellars was out to find some precise modern counterparts to Handel’s 18th-century characters – and turn up the heat while also taking the opera on its own uncut terms – Schlather seizes more on the general archetype the characters represent, and then turns them inside out with highly inventive subtext that explores the richness of possibilities.

Sellars now seems rigorous in comparison. Schalther enjoys a much wider playing field since archetypes are more broad than specific personalities that represent them. He seems to assume that the storytelling pretty much takes care of itself – at least as much as we’d want it to – and uses the face value of the characters only as a starting point for dramatizing the their likely behavior – according to his highly personal and often expansive ideas of each archetypal boundary.

One comparison is the theater music of Stephen Sondheim vs. the pop songs of James Taylor. Both have their classics, though Sondheim is ceaselessly dedicated to creating a clear through line, a narrative that locks into the larger plot and elucidates it, while Taylor is a series of emotional states that are related and build on each other but might not even stay in the same time or place.

Schalther has that pop-song mentally (this is an observation, not a judgment). He didn’t stage the opera so much as he took its emotional temperature at any given moment and ran with it, not always with great precision or eloquence, but  successfully more often than not – while drawing such vivid results from singers that Drew Minter gave the most penetrating Handel performance I’ve seen since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Schalther demands to be taken seriously.

What, exactly, did it look like? The gallery is basically like  long, narrow hallway painted white. Audience seats pointed west toward a long, narrow platform not unlike the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Die Soldaten at the Park Avenue Armory several summers back. In back of the audience was a small Handelian orchestra confidently led by Geoffrey McDonald. The general ambiance felt like the downtown Flea Theater where Ed Sylvanus Iskandar stages wildly inventive epics such as The Mysteries (which was basically The Bible) with minimal means, not much space and intermission refreshments served by the performers.

Onstage, the characters were lined up in chairs along the ramp, striking archetypal poses. Orlando (Minter) looked disheveled, as if having just escaped from a psyche ward. As Angelica Queen of Cathay, Kiera Duffy was in a mink coat, blonde wig and sunglasses. As the shepherdess Dorinda, Anya Matanovic looked suitably ingenuous, though her late-in-the-opera transformation into something out of the musical Rent had her literally stripping the shirt off conductor McDonald’s back.

Hadleigh Adams sang Zoroastro in the first scene and reappeared in many guises, often in the opera’s most compelling stage pictures as the demon within these characters, whispering in their ear the words that came out their mouths. Charismatic Brennon Hall was Medoro, the African prince. The production embraced the innate artificiality of Handelian opera. The first half had bright, flat lighting, almost like ancient Greek theater that was performed in daylight hours on the blazing sun. (Later, the lighting grew dark and abruptly Brechtian).

One could puzzle at length over some of the more intuitive production touches. Just before intermission, Dorinda made a great show of frosting a cake onstage – a reference to one of New York’s newest eccentrics, one Bettina Banayan, who boards subway trains – icing cakes and sharing it with other subway riders as a way of bringing everybody together. (Yes, Schlather may be enshrining the cake lady the way Jerry Seinfeld memorialized the famous soup Nazi.)

That cake imagery embodied the strengths and weaknesses of this Orlando production. The cake ultimately failed to unite the characters prior to intermission, leaving Dorinda onstage alone, throughout intermission, with her turquoise frosting.  (Somewhat puzzled, I asked if there was anything I could do to make her feel better; she slowly shook her head “no”.) When all was resolved at the end of the opera, the cake reappeared with candles. Nice! So that idea did come together. But the cake was also the source of a lot of marginally relevant gags, mostly about stealing frosting – which showed how much Schlather needs to be more selective. Were the directorial flourishes pared back by 30 percent, his core purpose with any given scene would’ve emerged more powerfully.  In any case, any great stage ideas (and there were a number of them) deserve breathing space. On one front, I seriously parted company with Schlather: Pre-madness Orlando was a knight of considerable repute, though rarely in this opera was there a sense of what he once was and how far he had fallen.

The key component in the production’s, of course, was first-class singing. Recitatives couldn’t have had more vitality. In arias, all of the singers were of a calibre that they pull their weight in a far less novel production.  Minter has built a career around Handel for more than 30 years – which was apparent in the way that he found such rich fodder for characterization within the music. Those who saw Duffy in the documentary film The Audition about the Metropolitan Opera know what a technically adept Handelian she can be.

With excellent singing also from Adams, Hall and Matanovic, Orlando had the quality I look for in Handel performance – a sense of one “wow”aria after another that makes the opera part singing contest but with edge-of-the-seat suspense that comes with wondering what feats of musico-dramatic characterization Handel will pull off next. The hipster audience seemed knocked for a loop. Handel can do that. To anybody.

Photo by Ian Douglas.



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